"Zinke is all hat, and no cattle."—Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
Indefinitely Wild

Ryan Zinke and the BLM’s Renegade Public-Land Plan

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management released plans that would have opened up thousands of acres of former national monuments to mining and drilling—despite Zinke's promises to the contrary


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If you believe GOP rhetoric, the party’s attempts to transfer management of America’s public lands from the federal government to the states isn’t about selling off that land: it's about upholding states' rights and minimizing government overreach.  

That’s a transparent lie, but nevertheless one that the party is heavily invested in. President Donald Trump and his Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, for example, are committed to sticking with the message that their reduction of national monuments in Utah definitely isn’t about selling that land to oil, gas, and mineral extraction interests. So….it would be a problem if their colleagues just tried to do just that, right?

That’s exactly what just happened. Last week, the Bureau of Land Management released its draft management plans for the former areas of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments that, post Trump's executive order last year, have reverted to that agency’s management. Those plans included opening up thousands of acres of former monument to mining and drilling, while selling off other parcels to private developers. 

This was a problem, because Zinke has stated:

As the chief steward of our public lands, it is my responsibility to ensure that these lands are used for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

And, coming so soon after the reduction, opening up the reduced land for extraction boldly contradicted this statement. 

So on Monday, Zinke climbed on his high horse and ordered that the plans to sell that land be canceled. “The secretary did not see the proposal before it went out and was not happy about it,” a DOI official told the Salt Lake Tribune. “As the secretary has made clear throughout his tenure, the Department of the Interior is opposed to the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands to states or private interests,” Zinke’s deputy, and former oil and gas lobbyist, David Bernhardt, wrote in a memo. 

This is, of course, ridiculous. Not only does the GOP’s official party platform lay out its goal to transfer ownership of public lands to the states—a move which, historically, has often resulted in the sale of large swaths of that land—but leaked emails from DOI have also established that resource extraction was the primary motivation behind the monument reduction. Those same documents reveal that the DOI purposefully set out to ignore public comment on the monument reduction (which was overwhelmingly anti-reduction), as well as input from local tribes

Yet Zinke continues to refute the evidence. For example:   

  • “I’ve heard this argument about Bears Ears’ oil and gas; that’s a nefarious argument…there are no oil and gas resources that anyone has reported in Bears Ears,” Zinke told the Salt Lake Tribune, shortly before the reduction. 
  • “This is not about energy,” Zinke stated in a press call on December 5, 2017. “There is no oil and gas assets.”
  • Zinke has also claimed that the reduction was made to “prioritize the voice of the people over that of the special interest groups.”

Since that time, leaked emails have revealed what the Salt Lake Tribune calls, “a coordinated effort by [the uranium industry] and Utah lawmakers…in urging lands be removed from Bears Ears.” 

Here are four of the most glaring examples demonstrating that Zinke's words don't match the DOI's actions:

  • This letter from the Utah state legislature, to the Department of the Interior, that was submitted as part of the review and that reads: “The monument threatens the existence of the White Mesa mill, forever prevents any new mining operations within the monument, and threatens to eliminate all existing mining operations within the monument.” 
  • An email sent from Senator Orrin Hatch’s (R.-Utah) office to the DOI included a map proposing new boundaries for Bears Ears, and stated, “This new boundary depicted on the map would resolve all known mineral conflicts…within Bears Ears.”
  • A memo created by the DOI, as part of the monument review, states, “The Kaiparowits plateau, located within [Grand Staircase-Escalante], contains one of the largest coal deposits in the United States.
  • In March, a massive document leak revealed that the DOI purposefully set out to ignore public comment on the monument reduction (which was overwhelmingly anti-reduction), and also input from local tribes

Are we really supposed to believe that the BLM’s proposal to open up former areas of these monuments for energy and mineral extraction was somehow unrelated to all this? Look, it’s a good thing that Zinke shut down that BLM proposal. But getting caught in a contradiction shouldn’t be the only thing that can motivate our Secretary of the Interior to actually act to protect public lands. Doing that should be his job—every day of the week.